After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Jesus and Peter
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ John 20:1-19
This week’s post-Resurrection appearance follows Jesus’ two appearances to the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Up until now, we’ve had no report of words between Peter and Jesus. We know Peter was one of the two disciples who, upon receiving the remarkable news of the empty tomb, ran to the tomb to see for himself. But Jesus was not there, and in the prior two appearances, there is no report of any kind of personal exchange between Peter and Jesus.
The silence invites curiosity. We all remember reading on Good Friday Peter’s dramatic denial of Jesus — three times before the cock crowed, just as Jesus predicted. In John’s Gospel, it is told simply, a bare recitation of fact: three questions, three denials, and then finally the bald statement, “and at that moment the cock crowed.” We are left to imagine how Peter felt or what he did next: he does not appear in the narrative again until Mary Magdalene runs to tell him the stone has been rolled away.
But it is not hard to imagine Peter agonizes over his failure. His absence from the scene of the cross is notable; in John’s version the Beloved Disciple is there to hear Jesus’ last words and take Mary into his care, as are several women, but not Peter. Presumably he is present in the upper room with the other disciples, but he doesn’t utter a word — is he struck dumb with fear that Jesus will not forgive him? Is he waiting for Jesus to speak, to condemn him for his faithlessness?
By the time we get to this story, he is willing to wait no longer. When he realizes the miraculous catch is a gift from the Lord, he leaps into the sea to reach Jesus faster. And finally, we hear Jesus speak to Peter: “Peter, do you love me?”
At first, it seems like a fair question, given Peter’s earlier denial. But then it’s repeated. And then again, a third time! Peter feels hurt, the Gospel writer tells us: hasn’t he already given the answer?
But Jesus is not asking because he needs to know: he’s asking because Peter needs to know. Peter is given the opportunity to turn his denials into affirmations. Instead of denying Jesus, he is invited to serve him. Just as he denied Jesus three times, now he is asked, three times, do you love me enough to take up the work I am leaving undone? To care for my flock, as I would? Even if it means going where you do not want to go? Even if it means dying as I did?
And this time, Peter says yes. This time, he takes up the staff and follows. This time, Jesus does not contradict him when he says, “You know that I do.”
it is often said that God is a God of second chances. But with Peter, we see that God is not just God of second chances, but of third chances, and fourth chances, and fifth chances. Indeed, God never seems to give up on us, even when we have failed about as abysmally as it is possible to fail. Instead, God invites us to stand up, dust ourselves off, and try again. He invites us back into right relationship, invites us to take up the work that anyone else might have deemed us unworthy for. We need not hide at the back of the room, stay away from the table, or avoid making eye contact. The love shown to us in Jesus is not limited by our failure to live fully into that love. Instead, that love is offered again and again — as many times as we need, until we are finally ready to follow.
“Do you love me?” Lord, you know that we do. “Then feed my sheep.” What are we waiting for? What is holding us back? Because we are already forgiven, already welcomed, and Jesus awaits our response.